,Researchers work inside a laboratory at BeiGene Ltd.'s research and development center in Beijing, China. - Filepic
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HONG KONG: If investors in China's biotech industry needed one more sign that the sector is coming of age, then a major licensing deal RemeGen Co Ltd struck last month with Seattle-based Seagen Inc fits the bill.
The agreement to co-develop cancer treatments using a RemeGen antibody drug conjugate is regarded as one of the biggest of its kind between a Chinese biotech and a Western firm. It provides for up to $2.4 billion in milestone payments, in addition to $200 million upfront as well as royalties if approved.
It is also at least the fifth out-licensing deal potentially worth more than $1 billion clinched by a Chinese biotech. Nearly all were signed in the past year, underscoring China's still small but growing role in developing innovative cancer drugs that will be used worldwide.
"China is clearly already an important and integral part of the global biopharma industry, not a separate ecosystem," said Franck Le Deu, senior partner at consultancy McKinsey in Hong Kong.
China's government has made cancer treatments a top priority for the industry. The world's most populous nation last year accounted for 30% of cancer deaths globally and 24% of newly diagnosed cases, according to one study.
Supportive policies for the sector over the past five years are also now bearing fruit and Western firms have come knocking at Chinese biotech doors.
For Seagen, the RemeGen deal will allow it to directly challenge breast cancer treatments from Roche Holding and AstraZeneca/Daiichi Sankyo. The antibody also shows promise in tackling bladder and stomach tumours.
Other notable deals include a Novartis AG agreement worth up to $2.2 billion for a BeiGene Ltd drug. The two are co-developing an antibody similar to Keytruda from Merck and Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb which help the immune system attack several different types of cancer and which have reaped billions of dollars in sales.
AbbVie has also partnered with I-Mab to co-develop a monoclonal antibody for several types of cancer in a deal worth up to $1.9 billion.
FLOURISHING ON FUNDING
Chinese biotechs have proliferated in a relatively short amount of time - a key catalyst being the return of overseas-trained Chinese scientists, dubbed "sea turtles", that began a decade ago and who have become increasingly attracted by domestic opportunities as the government pushes to develop the industry.
More recently, China in 2017 and 2018 aligned regulatory standards with international norms, rapidly speeding up the review system for new drugs. The sector also has seen a surge in funding after Hong Kong's stock exchange changed its rules in 2018 to allow listings of biotechs that have yet to earn revenue.
Success in the West is still fledgling - just three drugs developed in China which include BeiGene's Brukinsa for a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - have been approved by the U.S. FDA.